Coral reef biologist stars in comic

He may not be able to scale tall buildings or launch bolts of energy, but Todd LaJeunesse is a defender of wildlife with an above-average ability to decipher the complexities of nature.

That's why cartoonist Adrian Pijoan chose the Penn State associate professor of biology to be the subject of his comic, titled "Reef." Published in the current issue of The Cartoon Picayune, the sixteen-page graphic treatment tells the story of LaJeunesse's research on coral reefs, and particularly of the relationships among coral animals and their symbiotic algae. The cartoon -- which also features LaJeunesse's graduate students -- describes the work lab members are doing to understand the often-damaging effects of climate change on coral-algae partnerships.

"I was drawn to Todd's research out of a desire to communicate about coral-reef conservation in a unique way," says Pijoan, a graduate student in the art and ecology master's program at the University of New Mexico who also holds a bachelor's degree in plant biology.

For Pijoan, telling science stories in comic form is a way of attracting a wide, non-scientist audience. "The end goal for scientists is often just to publish their findings in a journal that's read by their peers," he says. "I wanted to find a way to reach people more broadly."

In July 2013, LaJeunesse received an email from Pijoan requesting permission to do a comic about his research and asking him for information and photos. "I was a bit skeptical," LaJeunesse says. "But I decided to work with Adrian because his approach to communicating science was new to me and because I was curious about how he could achieve it using my research as a theme."

It didn't hurt that LaJeunesse himself is a bit of an amateur artist, known among his colleagues for including detailed, hand-drawn illustrations of corals in his scientific journal papers.

Over the course of a few months, LaJeunesse sent Pijoan papers, websites, and photos, and answered the artist's questions. Then, in October, he received an email with an attachment.

"I was thrilled by what I saw, by the story that Adrian told about my work," says LaJeunesse. "The drawings were extremely creative and original, and the reporting about my research was remarkably accurate. He created images of the basic biology of corals that rapidly conveyed fundamental concepts and processes that would take me much longer to describe verbally."

LaJeunesse sees improved communication with the public as an increasingly important task for scientists. "We've got to get more creative, especially so we can reverse some misunderstandings about the process of science," he says. "With Adrian's comic, I now have something I can show to a wide variety of people, many of whom may not have the background to fully understand the research that we do."

In addition to being impressed with Pijoan's ability to translate the technical aspects of his research, LaJeunesse was delighted to see his own likeness, and those of his students, in Pijoan's drawings. "I have sometimes wondered what I would look like as a comic book character," he says, grinning.

LaJeunesse's students, too, were excited to be included. "We often communicate our research findings in technically detailed scientific publications," says Drew Wham, a Ph.D. student in biology. "This can make our research seem inaccessible. Adrian's comic has made our findings available in a unique way, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it."

"The comic is an excellent way to illustrate the environmental challenges that reef ecosystems are already facing," adds Allison Lewis, a Ph.D. student in biology. "This type of scientific outreach is the key to gaining public support and ultimately making the necessary changes to protect environmental resources. I am excited to be a part of the comic and think it does a great job highlighting the need for my generation of young scientists to focus our research efforts on conservation."

LaJeunesse was particularly impressed with Pijoan's ability to highlight the threats corals face while also weaving in the basic biological science.

"The most difficult part of the project was trying to balance my desire to include a lot of technical -- and really interesting -- information in the piece without overwhelming the reader," says Pijoan. "My editor helped me to keep it simple while also including the essential information."

The story begins with a dramatic description, in word and image, of "a coral reef transformed from vibrant, diverse ecosystem…into a graveyard of bone white stalks." The narrative then briskly limns the details of LaJeunesse's research into the temperature-dependent relationships between corals and their symbionts. According to LaJeunesse, global warming is the main culprit behind the massive mortality of corals observed over the last few decades.

The comic concludes that "scientists and others are doing everything they can to assess the biological limitations of corals and their capability to respond to a changing world, and also to determine whether anything can be done to help these animals. But even with their dedication," it states, "if people continue to abuse the ocean, we might not see the rebound of coral reef ecosystems within our lifetimes, or for many generations to come."

To avoid that scenario, LaJeunesse says, will take not one, but billions, of superheroes.

"Reversing the concerning trends in global change will require the collective commitment of the entire human race." 


Todd LaJeunesse is associate professor of biology. He can be reached at tcl3@psu.edu.
Adrian Pijoan is a graduate student in art and ecology at the University of New Mexico, http://adrianpijoan.com/reef.

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Last Updated February 18, 2014